Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series with the question, “What does it mean to be a girl?” In the series we have explored the way society defines and confines girlhood, as well as gender in general. (Click here for part 1.)
All week I’ve been thinking about De’Liza’s post and the question of, “What does it mean to be a girl?” Is it biology? Like when people incessantly hound an expectant mother about the gender of the fetus? Is it about the patriarchal demands of defining anything non-white-hetero-male as “other” and subservient?
Or is it something else entirely?
I have dabbled in this question many times, including this post which explored the similar question of, “The moment I knew I was a woman, not a girl:”
Well, here’s the thing. When I look back at my own experience and ask myself, “When did you feel like you were a woman, and not a girl?” I don’t really like the answer very much. And not just because of the car creepery (which for me was more like, guys in bleachers at a football game, but same difference). When I think about when I transitioned from girlhood to womanhood, my answer is all tangled up by my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse.
I experienced sexual abuse, off and on, from the age of five through 14. So that meant that in the pre-pubescent years, I was introduced to sexual experiences and thoughts and feelings about my body and other people’s bodies way, way before I was developmentally mature enough or prepared to handle them. In essence, I was hyper-sexualized in childhood. So, by the time I went through puberty, those things that might have seemed new or interesting to many were old and, in fact, highly emotionally charged with negative feelings that I had yet to process. Sex, sexual organs, being objectified by the male gaze, being reduced as a person to simply body parts… these were old news to me. So, by the time someone yelled “nice tits” to me, it just felt expected and dangerously frightening to me. It felt like the terrible experiences that had been only in a private space for years were suddenly possible anywhere by any post-pubescent male (creepy Chemistry teachers, included). It felt like I had grown bullseyes on my chest, rather than breasts. It felt like there was no safe place in the world anymore. And for the life of me, I could not understand how all the other girls could be excited by the attention and possibility. And I did my best to pretend that I liked it when a boy grabbed my ass in the hallway or made some lewd comment. Because I knew if I said I didn’t, it wouldn’t take long before I was called a dyke. And every adolescent girl knows that is one of the worst things to be called — even if you don’t know what it means, yet. (I feel I should clarify here that I am accepting and an ally to lesbians and any other GBTQ person. I’m just trying to highlight the lesbian-baiting in adolescence.)
That’s a lot right there. But thankfully, that’s not when I truly felt like a woman, not a girl:
I finally felt at home in my skin as a woman when I was pregnant. Please don’t misconstrue this statement. It’s not a pitch that pregnancy or having kids makes you a woman or even a happy woman. But for me, as a survivor of sexual abuse, it was a time of deep personal healing. At first, it was difficult because I felt very publicly on display in terms of my femaleness. But as I lived in that experience longer and longer, it became more and more healing. It was the first time — maybe in my entire life — when being female and having female body parts did not feel threatening or dangerous or sexual in a way that was uncomfortable. The bigger my belly got, the more in command of my own body I felt (which is ironic, because you become less and less in command of your body the bigger you get!). I finally felt like my body was my space. And it felt like as the fetus grew inside me, that it was somehow healing for me that I could choose for that to happen. I could choose to become pregnant. I could choose to share my body with a fetus (we’ll leave reproductive politics out of this for today).
But all this — this exploration of womanhood — is what comes after being a girl. The girlhood is the start of the game. It’s the preamble. And it is the context. It’s where we learn the rules that define our existence, maybe even for life.
What does it mean to be a girl?
It’s a loaded question, really. Cisgender girls only? Trans-girls? Gender non-conforming individuals and gender-queer individuals who exist within and without the girlhood space. All of the above. Because to me, the question isn’t so much about the exclusivity of girlhood, but about how in our society gender — the gender binary, a belief in two and only two static genders — is as much a “diagnosis of exclusion” as it is about being definitively something. In the medical world, a diagnosis of exclusion occurs when everything else that it could be is eliminated. In our society, a girl is everything that a boy is not. She is soft; he is hard. She is weak; he is strong. She is verbal; he is physical. And so on. They’re not based in fact or biology, as all the studies have proven that so much “common knowledge” is just stereotypes ingrained with such efficiency and rigor that we can barely see the gaps between the newborn blank-slate and the moment that society steps in and starts indoctrinating the new life into a predetermined box of limitations and expectations.
If that wasn’t true, then we wouldn’t have had to endure those shrieking headlines a few years back when Angelina Jolie’s child opted to wear clothes that are gender-coded as “boys clothes.” And I wouldn’t have post after post on The Tired Feminist about the myriad ways that a strict gender-binary (and sexist marketing based on it) is simply not working for people all over. And we wouldn’t see internet memes like this:
Well, really, how cool is that meme?!
But, I digress.
Maybe it would help if we looked at some more tangible evidence of the stuff of girlhood. It’s a topic that feels ever-present in my mind since I had my child. Society calls her a daughter. She’s a she. The label came straight away on her birth certificate in the first moment of her life. There’s no choice about it in our society. When you are born, you are promptly shuttled into a defining, limiting, trap of a gender experience. It starts with pink and blue and it snowballs from there. (There’s a reason why it’s making international headlines that Germany is going to allow a third gender option on birth certificates.)
And there is a lot of pink around my house these days. But there’s also green and purple and blue and red. My kid has a serious thing for Spiderman, but alas no Spidey undies for the kid with girl-parts. She likes to pair one of her many, many red Spiderman t-shirts (found exclusively in the “boy” section, of course) with a pink tutu. Her favorite swim-shirt is solid green, with a yellow Batman logo. Her most trusted toy is a neon-pink stuffed pig, affectionately called Pig. And recently we splurged on a white and blue play-kitchen after we could only pry her away from one with much waling and tantruming. I don’t cook at all and my husband would probably live exclusively on a combination of Taco Bell and pizza if left to his own devices, but there you go. She wants to pretend to cook. Good for her. Maybe she’ll become a chef (a male-dominated field). Or an architect, considering her love of all forms of building toys, which she has made sure to stockpile in every single room in our house (including bathrooms!). Or a singer, considering her constant crooning and dancing.
But first my husband and I have to prepare her for the world that wants to tear down her free spirit. We have to give her the tools to shut down the teachers who will try to dissuade her from pursuing physics (or worse yet, the female teachers who openly complain that they themselves suck at math). I’ve got to decide if I want to put her in martial arts in a couple of years to shore up her confidence and embed self-defense skills before the rush of terrible girls-are-week messaging hits her as a tween and teen. Or perhaps soccer, to encourage gender-appropriate aggression. I’ve got to track down lists of girl-positive princesses and learn age-appropriate ways to encourage her to look critically at stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Do you really think that the only thing you are meant to do in life is become someone’s wife? And somehow, before she’s a teenager — well before, I hope — I have to help her learn to love her body and learn the correct terms for parts and how to protect herself and respect herself in terms of sex and to not cave to the pressure around her to find fault with every strand, pound, zit, and inch. (Even when that means telling myself to shut up and not pass on body hating fat-talk.)
It’s a tall order being the parent of a girl in a world that really kind of hates girls. Don’t believe me?
- A new study shows that girls not only spend more hours per week doing chores than boys, but they also get paid less for them. Who knew the wage gap started before puberty?!
- New research shows that not only are girls genetically very good at math, but that girls out-perform boys in math and science — everywhere but in North America and Britain. Not only that, but when asked, girls themselves are pretty enthusiastic about math and science. So what was that about boys being predisposed to being better at STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math)?
- We even teach sex education differently depending on gender. Girls are taught to wait for love and that they should be ever-vigilant about “teasing boys.” (Because boys are always up for sex 24/7! And everybody is totally, totally hetero!) Many abstinence-based sex ed curriculum focus on outdated sexist stereotypes that are deeply rooted in the patriarchal gender binary. But we don’t need to switch to a fact-based, comprehensive sex ed curriculum even though they are proven to be more effective, right?
- Girls start worrying about their body image, including worrying about their weight and beauty, as young as the age of five. And they’re all on diets. A report from Britain found that half of girls aged 13 to 14 were on diets. Holy fuck!
And that’s just a random sampling of depressing news about growing up girl. As a parent I look at that and feel a heavy weight on my chest. It all feels like too much to carry. But I figure if nothing else, I can focus on this one thing: Girls do not have to be nice. If we can give girls one thing, maybe that’s the thing. Because when we can shed this idea that girls (and women) have to make sure everyone else is happy before taking care of themselves and that they have to worry about being called a bitch if they speak their minds … then they can pretty much take on all this other shit, too.
So, consider me a convert to Catherine Newman’s brand of pro-girl parenting, as elucidated in the New York Times a few weeks ago:
Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.
I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice. I tell you this confessionally. Because do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.
And, currently, she is not in danger. She is decisive and no-nonsense, preferring short hair and soft pants with elastic waistbands. Dresses get in her way, and don’t even get her started on jeans, the snugly revealing allure of which completely mystifies her. She’s the kind of person who donates money to the Animal Welfare Institute and attends assiduously to all the materials they send her, including their dully depressing annual reports, which she keeps in a special folder. Gender stereotypes, among other injustices, infuriate her. “This is so stupid!” she sighs at Target, about the pink rows of dolls and the blue rows of Lego. “Why don’t they just put a penis or a vagina on every toy so you can be completely sure you’re getting the right one?”